Romano: Why is Florida risking future hurricane misery?

Published Oct. 13, 2018

No one should know better than Florida, right?

When it comes to storms, we've got the best experience misery can buy.

We've been hit by major hurricanes in the Southeast (Andrew) and the Southwest (Charley). We've had hurricanes slowly creep south to north (Irma) and east to west (Jeanne). We've taken repeated hits (Opal, Dennis and Michael) in the panhandle every 10 years or so.

So let me ask you this:

Why are we so slow to learn?

Just to be clear, nothing can protect us completely from a storm the size and strength of Hurricane Michael. No matter what we do, that type of hurricane will leave devastation in its wake.

The problem is our leaders get lax. We allow them to be forgetful.

There was a time, after Andrew blew apart Homestead in 1992, that Florida got serious about combatting hurricane damage. Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature passed some of the strictest building codes in the nation in the early 2000s.

And then?

We slowly lost our minds.

It might have begun in 2011 when the Legislature began chipping away at growth management laws. Gov. Rick Scott obliterated the state's growth management agency and cut funding to Regional Planning Councils. In the name of jobs and development, Florida was rolling back reforms that had been in place since the 1980s and were meant to manage and control the state's building boom.

After that, the Legislature began taking aim at those building codes that supposedly caused housing prices to rise and resulted in too much red tape. That effort culminated in a law passed last year that essentially made Florida a disinterested participant in international building standards.

"Florida does have this kind of disaster amnesia,'' said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers For Common Sense, a Washington, D.C ., watchdog group.

"You're in that build-disaster-rebuild mode like the old rinse-wash-repeat shampoo commercial. In the short term, politicians see growth as valuable for the tax base. But in the longer term, if you don't manage growth correctly it becomes painful and very costly for the taxpayer.''

How does growth management figure into storm protection?

Building in flood zones, for instance. Or paving over wetlands that otherwise would absorb some of the excess water created by a hurricane. Many of the natural buffers that once protected Florida are long gone. And rebuilding in the same place, and largely the same manner, after a hurricane is another issue.

Bush appeared on MSNBC last week and suggested adaptive policies for land use in Florida were necessary in the face of more and more catastrophic storms.

"The reason there's more property damage,'' Bush said, "is there's more property.''

In the aftermath of last week's hurricane, Bush said you will soon see evidence of homes constructed under the new building codes that will be standing next to older homes that were destroyed.

If that's the case, how does the Legislature reconcile a 2017 law (HB 1021) that could potentially hamper safety innovations in the future?

The law does not weaken existing codes, but it does tilt future decisions in the direction of developers and builders. Under the old law, Florida would automatically adopt the International Code Council's newest regulations, and then toss out the rules that did not make sense for the state. In other words, the default position was toward safety.

Now, the international codes are no longer automatically adopted, and the Florida Building Commission instead picks and chooses which codes it likes. The Legislature also made it easier for the building commission, which is stacked with developers, to change codes by lowering the voting threshold from three-quarters to two-thirds.

"We owe it to the people who just went through Hurricane Michael to rethink this law,'' said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of Tallahassee's Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. "We need to return to the practices of 2002, and get back on a path that keeps pace with the International Code Council.''

The scary thing, Chapman-Henderson said, is surveys have shown most home-owners do not worry about building codes because they assume local leaders require maximum protection.

As it turns out, with this 2017 law, Florida isn't even requiring minimum protection.

For a state that understands disaster better than most and spends billions on rebuilding, it's ludicrous to think our recent laws, policies and attitudes may invite future damage.

Will we never learn?